Climbing Ecuador’s Mt. Cotopaxi– the world’s tallest active volcano

Several months ago, a friend named Justin and I decided that, after months of playing in Ecuador, we wanted a real physical challenge. We visited a tour company in Quito to find out what they could offer, and we were intrigued by their ad for a grueling hike up Mt. Cotopaxi, the world’s tallest active volcano at 19,347 ft. After ironing out some details, and confident in our physical fitness levels, Justin and I were assigned a guide, and we were on our way.

The bus and jeep rides to the base of the mountain were breathtakingly beautiful, and once we arrived, we hiked up to the “base camp” refuge by about 3:00 pm. Our guide, Carlos, prepared enormous plates of food for us, and insisted that we eat as much as possible. Justin and I did as much carbo-loading as we could, and we had already slumped back in our chairs when we saw Carlos bringing in two more giant plates of food. He laid the plates in front of us as if to say, “And now, for the main course.” After some protest, we nibbled dutifully.

At midnight, after getting no sleep due to an altitude-induced headache, I got up, along with 20 or so other climbers, to begin the cold, dark ascent. As this short article about the hike up Cotopaxi puts it, “After you add illness, inexperience and altitude, we had the makings of a great adventure.”

We practiced using crampons and ice axes for the first time, roped ourselves to our trusty guide, and began our slow, plodding ascent. After about five hours of trudging up the mountain, Justin’s asthma had him in a bad way. I didn’t feel so great either. Justin made the tough decision to turn around, and because we were all roped together, that meant I had to come down too. Frigid and exhausted, I feigned great disappointment.

Though we didn’t quite make the summit, and even though the climb was bone-chillingly cold, I’d still do it again. It can be easy to lounge on the beaches, or go out drinking every night, or just generally turn into a waste of space when on a long trip. My advice, though I don’t always follow it, is to challenge yourself not to fall into those easy traps. Pick an activity you think you probably can’t do– and give it a shot. If you succeed, great. If you fail, well, sometimes it’s not the worst thing for us to be knocked right on our asses.

More on Cotopaxi here and some scenic photos of it here.